From the start of "The Tenth Man," the eleventh film from talented Argentinian director/writer Daniel Burman, the character named "Usher" dominates, although he isn't actually seen until the film is halfway over. Usher is a real man, and in the film he plays himself, although "The Tenth Man" is not a documentary. Usher is an unofficial patriarch of a small bustling community in the Jewish quarter in Buenos Aires. He is the "go-to" guy for everything: he can get people Xanax, he can get people a plumber. He runs a soup kitchen, he helps plan funerals. He is glued to his phone. Usher is heard, for the most part, in "The Tenth Man," as a voice on the phone, giving lists of assignments to his secular son Ariel (Alan Sabbagh), visiting from New York City. Usher is on the go all the time. He makes Don Corleone look like a slacker.
Burman and his cinematographer Daniel Ortega give it a hand-held thrust-into-the-center aesthetic that makes the events onscreen seem caught, rather than rehearsed or manipulated. For the most part, it's pure chaos and cacophony, an accurate reflection of the community. The relationships and events are explained, eventually, but there's a lot of catch-up that's done along the way, for Ariel, and for us.
Even as Ariel takes a taxi to the airport in New York, Usher's voice makes demands over the phone from Argentina: Could Ariel please track down a pair of Size 46 Velcro sneakers? For God's sake, whatever you do, no shoelaces! The search for the Size 46 Velcro sneakers takes on a practically existential aspect as the film goes on, Ariel striking out at every shoe store he visits. He knows his father would be able to find such a shoe. He cannot. Ariel arrives in Buenos Aires and is thrust into a world filled with rules he can barely comprehend. This is the community he walked away from but it has continued on in his absence, vibrant, busy, interconnected.
Alan Sabbagh as Ariel has a watchful and open face, his eyes flitting around trying to take in the intersecting patterns of the world he enters. He is a good sport, he does what is asked of him, but often he doesn't know why. His performance is very touching and funny. Meanwhile, he can't get any face-time with Usher, who is busy from morning until night. Usher remains a voice on the phone, rattling off instructions to his son, and each instruction has equal importance: The crisis in the meat supply needs to be handled just as much as those sneakers need to be found. No detail is irrelevant: help is help, no matter the context.
Usher runs a charity sort of foundation out of a storefront that provides everything for the jostling people who line up outside its doors. To say the store is busy does not even begin to describe the atmosphere, and they are wonderful sequences, funny and loud and rich with behavior and characters, a non-stop buzz of activity that overwhelms Ariel at first. One woman who works there catches Ariel's eye. She is the silent Eva, her long dark wig falling down her back, and she is played by the marvelous Julieta Zylberberg. (Zylberberg was a guest at Ebertfest in 2015, when "Wild Tales" screened at the festival, at the same time that "El Cinco", a terrific romantic film, was screening at Tribeca 2015. "El Cinco" has not yet gotten distribution, but keep your eyes peeled for it.) These are three totally different types of characters. Zylberberg shows great sensitivity to material, it's like she's three different actresses in each film. In "The Tenth Man," she barely speaks. She glides through her tasks, hovering near Ariel, waiting to see what he might need. To Ariel, she is a vision: A beautiful woman (as she is) is one thing. But a beautiful completely silent and Orthodox woman (as she also is) is another thing entirely. Her silence beckons. What would she say if she decided to speak?
There are beautiful funny details in the film, providing a rich and multi-layered texture of life, life that goes on outside the frames of the film, life that continues as we speak: fragments of overheard speech at a soup kitchen, glimpses of characters seen once and then never again. There's a rabbi who owns a fabric store called "Mad About Fabrics" and everyone calls him "Mad About Fabrics," as though that is his name.
The energy of "The Tenth Man" is relentless, and every day presents the community with endless urgent tasks, all of which require all hands on deck. Nobody has time to sit around saying, "What does this all mean?" Life is just too damn busy. The film opens with a flashback, showing young Ariel watching Usher talk on the phone. There's a funeral, and they need Usher to be "the tenth man." Ariel does not understand why it's important to go to a funeral for a stranger, instead of hanging out with your son. But the concept of "The Tenth Man," in Jewish tradition, that it takes ten to make a congregation, is at the heart of the film. But Daniel Burman works this theme by stealth. The film is sneakily powerful that way.
Ultimately, the story is about a son re-entering the world of his father, the world he left long ago. Whether or not there is still a place for him there is somewhat irrelevant. The second he touches ground in Argentina, he sets about trying to complete the laundry-list of tasks given to him by Usher. He doesn't understand much of what is happening, and he is side-tracked by the gliding silent beauty of Eva, but it is impossible to ignore the power of the unshakable support-system that takes care of everyone in the community. Ariel observes at one point, "You people make the economic theory collapse."
"The Tenth Man" is extremely funny, and the observations of human behavior are accurate and loving. It's a kind-hearted film, albeit with a loud mouth and a constantly ringing cell phone. Usher may just be a voice on the phone for most of it, but he is the ultimate Tenth Man, the one who completes the group, who allows the rituals to continue. Without having to be told, Ariel knows that should he decide to step into that role himself, he would have very big shoes to fill. Size 46 Velcro sneakers, to be exact.